HC Deb 13 February 1967 vol 741 cc1-4

10.4 a.m.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

I beg to move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the election of all members of Regional Economic Planning Councils; and for connected purposes. This Bill is about democracy—a cause which we all support with our words but constantly mock by our actions. I am a democrat because I believe democracy is the best way of organising and governing society; and because it is the only system of government which truly encourages the development of human personality. As a Liberal, I believe that choice is an instrument of personality and therefore I wish people to have the widest possible choice, and to use it as fully as possible.

In political terms, this means involving all the people as closely as possible in the decision-making process of government. The further we remove these decisions from the people, the more we inhibit the development of human per sonality. Democracy is not a static thing. It must continually develop and we must be always on our guard against encroachment on it.

Nowhere is democracy more threatened in Britain today than in local government, which is fighting for its life. Local initiative is stifled; the trend to national uniformity is gaining ground; central government's desire to control everything is rapacious. As more and more power passes from local government to Whitehall, local apathy sets in. More than half of all county council seats and nearly three-quarters of all rural district seats remain uncontested, and fewer than half the electors even bother to vote in local elections.

As local government appears to be debating more and more about less and less, men and women who could provide first-class local leadership cease to bother. As local government loses more and more of its functions, it is replaced by ad hoc boards appointed by Whitehall. We have the Regional Economic Planning Councils, the Regional Road Construction Units, the Regional Transport Authorities and many others. These bodies do not derive their authority from the people whom their decisions will affect. Grass roots democracy has become a "demockery" and in its place we have "ad hocracy".

This Bill is an attempt to stop the process before it is too late. The Government have introduced machinery for regional economic planning, but this has nothing whatever to do with democracy. It merely extends the frontiers of central government to the regions. How are the members of these councils chosen? What criteria is used? We have been told that "they will be appointed as individuals and not as delegates or representatives of particular interests". We have been told too that "special attention will be given to those areas in each region which have particular economic problems". But the membership of the South-West Regional Economic Planning Council makes nonsense of all this.

Bristol, with a population of 430,000 people, has nine members; Cornwall, with a population of 350,000, has only two. It takes 175,000 Cornishmen to secure a seat on this council but only 48,000 Bristolians. Although I am aware that one Cornishman is equal to three-and-a-half Bristolians any day of the week, nevertheless this makes a mockery of any pretensions the Council has to represent the people of the South-West Region as a whole.

So why not elect them? It is extraordinary that, in a country which calls itself a democracy, this question should have to be answered. Surely it is for those who believe that they should not be elected to say why. Why should a process which is right for the selection of Members of Parliament and, indeed, leaders of political parties, be wrong for the selection of members of these councils?

I believe passionately that democracy is still the best and most efficient sway of organising any branch of government. It is true that in a democracy the votes of the dunderheads and the scoundrels count: but then, in any other system, they generally run the show. The trouble with government by appointment is that those appointed soon forget they are appointed and think themselves anointed. I believe that my Bill will help to strengthen democracy and local government in Britain.

I want people in the regions to be able to make their own decisions and choose their own leaders. I want local government to have far more powers than it now has. Local government should not just be an agency for the central Government. It should take back much of what now festers and stagnates in the pigeon-holes of Whitehall. My aim is to replace centralised bureaucracy by democratic federalism. The Liberal aim is to add one phrase to Lincoln's classic definition of democratic government— … government of the people, by the people, for the people … Yes, and "government near the people".

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Pardoe, Mr. Thorpe, Mr. Grimond, Mr. Lubbock, Mr. Bessell, Mr. James Davidson, Mr. Hooson, Mr. Russell Johnston, Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Richard Wainwright, and Dr. Winstanley.

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